Christ Stopped at Eboli (1979)




Director:  Francesco Rosi

Starring:  Gian Maria Volonte (Levi), Irene Papas (earthy housekeeper Giulia Venere), Paolo Bonacelli (Don Luigi Magalone), Alain Cuny (Barone Nicola Rotunno), Lea Massari (Luisa Levi), Franois Simon (Don Traiella)

 Italian with English subtitles. 

writer Carlo Levi's exile from Mussolini in the Basilicata region of southern Italy


Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire movie.

Carlo Levi is brooding about his past.  Many years have passed and he has not been able to keep his promise that he made when he left a small village in southern Italy.  He had promised to return but now he does not think that he can ever fulfill the promise. 

Flashback.  1935.  The train stops at Eboli.  Carlo Levi gets off the train and pets a dog named Barone (according to the note left on the abandoned dog).  When he starts to get on another train the dog follows him.  Levi transfers to a bus and again the dog follows him.  The dog sits in the back of the bus.  When the dog sees a woman holding two chickens the dog starts to bark wildly.  This upsets the people on the bus.  Levi intervenes by asking if he can have the dog.  He is allowed to keep the dog. 

As Levi approaches his destination he perceives the land as one of no hope.  No one come here; it is as if time stood still.  When he arrives at his last stop, he is met by the town clerk.  He tells Levi that he will be put up with a relative of his.  Levi wants to know if he can bring the dog along with him.  He will have to ask the mayor for permission.  The town looks under-populated, but there are more people at the town plaza.  Levi meets the town mayor who gives him the permission for the dog and introduces him to the town's two elderly doctors.  Levi is also a medical doctor, but he has never actually practiced medicine. 

It turns out that Levi is a political prisoner.  The mayor tells him that there are ten other political prisoners, each of whom stay to themselves.  Every morning the prisoners have to sign the register by order from the large town of Matera. 

Levi meets one interesting character after another.  He finds out that the worst political prisoners are the two communists in town.  And he soon finds out that the towns people want to use him for their medical care.  He is very uneasy about this because he has never practiced medicine.  But that does not deter the anxious town residents.  The mayor gives a speech in the town plaza.  He says Negus of Abyssinia (Ethiopia) has provoked Italy and he does not know how long Mussolini can put up with this without taking action. 

Besides being a doctor, Levi loves to paint pictures.  His sister comes from Turin to visit him.  She is also a doctor.  He tells his sister:  "I feel like I've always lived her."  The town has a different tempo and different rules. 

The very bold Giulia Venere becomes Levi's house cleaner.  Most women would not clean house for a bachelor because they feel that to do so would mean that they were having sex with the man.  The older Giulia has a young son with her.  She is proud to say that she has been pregnant seventeen times.  Levi is fond of her and her boy, but he finds Giulia to be very superstitious.  She refuses to sit for a portrait for him, because she is afraid the painter of the portrait will come to own her soul. 

The Ethiopians are still trying the patience of Italy.  War is declared.  A mother tries to stop her young son from going away to serve as a solider in Ethiopia.  Levi gets in trouble with the mayor who has to censor all the mail of the political prisoners.  The mayor is upset about what Levi wrote to his sister about the town.  Levi had written about how alienated the towns people were from Rome and the Italian government.  The government is seen as those people in Rome.  Even World War I was seen as a distant war waged by Rome; in other words, someone else's battle that they are forced to fight. 

Giulia is leaving and she tells Levi that she will get him another cleaning woman.  The mayor drives the local priest out of town for talking about peace, instead of being a cheerleader for the war in Ethiopia.  More and more towns people come to Levi for medical treatment.  So many come to him that the Mayor has to tell him that he is forbidden to practice medicine.  But the towns people don't care what the government says.  They protest in front of the mayor's residence.  They say they will sign a petition to get permission for Levi to be the town's doctor.   

The mayor is unmovable until his daughter gets sick. He sends for Dr. Levi, but Levi sends him a message that he will not treat the daughter if the mayor dos not agree that he can also see anyone else in town.  The mayor is still stubborn, but his wife yells that it's o.k.  So the mayor has to agree. 

An announcement comes that Field Marshall Badoglio and his army have triumphed and have entered Addis Ababa.  The war is over.  The bells of the town ring out the good news.  Since the war is over, the political prisoners, except for the two communists, are granted amnesty.  Levi and his dog leave to return to Turin.  A large crowd sees him off. 


This is an o.k. movie.  In a way it was like an anthropological look at a small town in southern Italy.  It was interesting to meet the different characters in the town and learn how alienated they felt from the larger governmental structures and culture.  But anthropology can only take one so far.  It would have been nice to see more of the effect of the experience on Carlo Levi, rather than deal with so many different colorful town characters.  Levi was always a decent person.  He did come to have a great affection for the town's people, but he was never one of those stuck-up fellows anyway.  So there wasn't really much development in his own character. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.

Historical Background:


1902  --  Carlo Levi born in Turin, Italy.  His father was a wealthy Jewish physician. 

1924  --  Carlo Levi graduated from the University of Turin. (He studied medicine there.) 

He became a painter and chose to follow his political interests.  At the university he was friends with radical liberal activist Piero Gobetti.

1929  --  Levi and Nello Rosselli formed an anti-fascist political group Giustizia e Libert Along with Leone Ginsburg, he was the leader of the Italian branch of the political organization.

1935-1936  --  because of his political activity, Levi was arrested and exiled to Aliano in Lucania, Italy.  There he helped with the medical treatment of the locals and did a lot of painting.

1939-1941  --  Levi lived in France. 

1941  -- he returned to Italy; he was arrested in Florence and placed in the Murate prison. 

after Mussolini's arrest --  Levi was released from prison.  He stayed hidden away in the Pitti Palace where he worked on his book Christ Stopped at Eboli

after World War II  --  in Rome he was the editor of an anti-fascist publication. 

1950  -- published The Watch.

1955  --  published Words are Stones.

1956  -- published The Future has an Ancient Heart.

1963-1968  --  he was elected to the Senate as a Communist Party representative.

1968-1972  -- he was re-elected and served until 1972. 

1975  -- he died in Rome of pneumonia. 


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